Why We Need Girl Studies

Welcome to Girl Museum’s interview series, Why We Need Girls’ Studies, for 2024. We have many exciting interviews this year with important scholars in the field to get insights about what we are all doing in this space to further our understanding of girlhood and girls’ experiences.

This month’s interview is with Dr Miranda Sachs. She is a historian of Modern Europe with an emphasis on French history and the history of childhood at Texas State University.

Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?

As a historian of childhood, I’ve found that many important developments in the history of childhood don’t always affect girls and boys in the same way. Oftentimes, the “normal” experience of childhood is what happens to boys and girls’ experiences go overlooked. For instance, I study child labor legislation in late nineteenth-century France. For the most part, legislators did not distinguish between girls and boys in the texts of child labor laws. When they set limits on how many hours young people could work or the minimum age at which they could enter the workforce, legislators used the gender-neutral term “the child.”

But these laws had less impact on girls’ work. Boys tended to work in more formal industrial workspaces, such as print shops or furniture workshops. Child labor inspectors had any easier time overseeing boys’ work. If an employer placed a boy in an illegal situation, inspectors would usually find out. That was not the case for girls. Their work often took place inside the home. Mothers might keep a daughter home from school to help take care of younger siblings. Or she might send her daughter to help a neighbor who ran a small workshop in her home. In both instances, the girl was working in an apartment that was also someone’s living space. It was not easy for inspectors to find these spaces. As a result, girls’ work was less regulated. The implementation of child labor laws in France formalized the division between girls’ and boys’ work. Boys’ work was more likely to be regulated. Girls were more likely to enter the workforce prematurely and work in less sanitary conditions. It is important to study how changes in the history of childhood affect girls. Otherwise, we avoid assuming that the boy experience is the norm.

Girlhood studies is a relatively new field, yet is rapidly changing. What are the biggest opportunities for those interested in studying girlhood?

The community of scholars who study girlhood is very rich. I have found scholars of childhood to be very generous. Colleagues not only read work, but also are very enthusiastic about my work. It’s a field where people are eager to support each other. That is particularly true of the folks in girlhood studies. People are eager to collaborate. I’ve learned a lot from other scholars in the field. I would highly recommend attending either the conference for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth or the Children’s History Society.

What is the biggest challenge facing girlhood studies? Do you have ideas on how we can address it?

Historians of children and childhood often struggle to find sources from the perspective of young people and that is even more of a challenge when studying girls. Even when I have been able to find sources from the perspective of children, these are overwhelmingly by and about boys. When researching my book, I found 10 memoirs by people who had grown up in Belle Époque Paris. Only one of these was by a woman. I looked through the archives of the Parisian police and collected roughly 1000 entries involving young people. Fewer than 100 involved girls. The rest were boys.

To deal with this challenge, we need to look at archives that are more specifically about girlhood. What organizations worked with girls? What kinds of activities did girls participate in? When I started looking in the archives of spaces that were primarily for girls, I did find girls. Female religious orders remained responsible for the education and welfare of French girls for most of the nineteenth century. When I started looking in religious archives, I found a lot about girls’ work. In fact, I found that in the early twentieth century, the French government started policing the religious orders that trained girls for work. Famously, the French government barred nuns from teaching as part of their campaign of secularization in the early twentieth century. But I had never seen anything on how this campaign affected girls’ work. By looking for sources about girls, I discovered sources that offered a new approach to the larger political history of secularization.

Finally, please feel free to plug any current projects or publications that you want to highlight. 

I wrote an article based on the archives I mentioned in the previous question. It is: “When the Republic Came for the Nuns: Laicization, Labor Laws, and Religious Orders,” French Historical Studies 42, 3 (August 2019).

For more on girl workers, check out my book An Age to Work: Working-Class Childhood in Third Republic Paris. In this book, I devote a chapter to the unique experience of girls in the workforce.

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